Divine Mercy 101: The Biblical Story of Divine Mercy

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 3: The Biblical Story of Divine Mercy

If our definition of "Divine Mercy" is accurate, then it has to fit not only with the meaning of the Biblical terms for "mercy," such as "hesed," "rachamim," and "eleos," but also with the whole story of God's dealings with His chosen people Israel, and with all that He has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. As the Catholic biblical scholar John L. Mackenzie claimed, "The entire history of the dealings of Yahweh with Israel can be summed up as 'hesed'."

Over the next few weeks, we shall show that Mackenzie's claim is, in fact, well-grounded. 

The Old Testament

According to the book of Genesis, God placed the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in a kind of paradise - the Garden of Eden - but they fell from that lofty state of grace through the serpent's temptation of them to an act of pride and disobedience, and their human nature was thereby corrupted. Then what was God's response to their disobedience? On the one hand, punishment: they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and became subject to toil, and pain, and death. And yet God also tempered their sentence with a promise of mercy: God promised that of the seed of the woman would one day spring forth someone who would crush the evil serpent's head (that is, who would defeat the devil's power, see Gen. 3:15). It is called in the Catholic tradition the "protoevangelium" (the first hint of the gospel), a prophetic foreshadowing of the Messiah who was to come.

Later in Genesis, there is the first homicide among the sons of Adam: Cain kills Abel. Then Cain is driven out, banished from his family to wander as a fugitive. Once again, however, God tempers His punishments with mercy. The Lord puts His mark of protection on Cain and declares (Gen. 4:15): "If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken upon him sevenfold."

In the story of Noah and the Flood, we see not only Divine justice, but Divine Mercy at work: Noah and his family are saved in the Ark from the flood, the human race is thereby given a second chance, and God places a rainbow in the sky as an abiding sign of His promise of forbearance with sinful humanity (Gen. 9: 8-17).

Then in the story of Noah and the Flood, we see not only Divine justice, but Divine Mercy at work: Noah and his family are saved in the Ark from the flood, the human race is thereby given a second chance, and God places a rainbow in the sky as an abiding sign of His promise of forbearance with sinful humanity (Gen. 9: 8-17). 

In these early chapters of Genesis, therefore, we do not have a very well-developed conception of the Divine Mercy; Moses and the Israelites who first wrote and read these chapters still had more to learn about the mercy of God. Nevertheless, the Divine Mercy is clearly in evidence. God is not just portrayed as a God of righteous wrath and punishment; rather, His strict justice is tempered (so to speak) by His mercy.

The merciful love of God crops up in other places in Genesis as well. For example, there is the story of Abraham pleading for mercy with God upon Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. The Lord promises Abraham that if He could find only 10 righteous persons in that whole city of wickedness, He would not destroy the city for the sake of the ten. 

There is also the beautiful testimony to the greatness of Divine Mercy in Jacob's prayer as he went to meet his brother Esau for the first time since Jacob's long sojourn with the family of Laban. Fearing that he would meet in his brother only vengeful anger, because Jacob had tricked Esau out of the family inheritance many years before, Jacob appealed for protection to the God of Abraham and Isaac, saying: " I am not worthy of the least of all thy mercies [RSV "I am not worthy of the least of all thy steadfast love and faithfulness" - "hesed"] which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan [many years ago], and now I have become to companies" (Gen. 32:11). 

It was the experience of the Exodus from Egypt that truly sealed in the minds and hearts of the Israelites that, above all, their God was a God of mercy. Pope John Paul II explains in his encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" (section 4);

"At the root of the many-sided conviction [about Divine Mercy], which is both communal and personal, and which is demonstrated by the whole of the Old Testament down the centuries, is the basic experience of the chosen people at the Exodus: the Lord saw the affliction of His people reduced to slavery, heard their cry, knew their sufferings and decided to deliver them. In this act of salvation by the Lord, the prophet [Isaiah] perceived His love and compassion. This is precisely the grounds upon which the people and each of its members based their certainty of the mercy of God, which can be invoked whenever tragedy strikes."

The Holy Father was referring here to a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah, who summed up Israel's understanding of what the Lord had done for them as follows (63: 7-9): 

"I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that He has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel which He has granted them according to His mercy, according to the abundance of His steadfast love. For he said, surely they are my people, sons who will not deal falsely; and he became their savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and pity He redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old." 

When the Israelites successfully crossed the Red Sea, Moses sang a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord: "Thou hast led in thy steadfast love [hesed] the people whom thou hast redeemed, thou hast guided them by thy strength to thy holy abode" (Ex. 15:13).

This series continues next week, on the theme "Divine Mercy in the Bible."

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In the High Middle Ages, the theme of the merciful love of God was certainly not the exclusive property of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and the Dominicans. The early Franciscans also contributed to the Church's meditations on Divine Mercy in their own distinctive way.

For St. Catherine, the merciful love of God so essentially defines who He is that, along with St. Augustine and St. Thomas, Catherine understands that it is precisely despair of His mercy that constitutes the only unforgivable sin.

We will not presume to outline here the whole teaching of St. Catherine's masterpiece, The Dialogue. Rather we will focus on the theme of Divine Mercy as it appears in the book.